Incomplete comparisons

This post covers a common error in writing of all kinds: incomplete comparisons. How is it possible to have a comparison without two or more objects? Well, it isn’t!

Unfortunately, you probably encounter examples of incomplete comparisons every week. So, what makes a comparison incomplete, and how can we avoid this pitfall in our writing?

Common comparison error #1: Unsubstantiated claims

If you have ever watched or read an ad, you have encountered the wild card of advertising: unsubstantiated claims.

Marketing thrives on trying to make one product or idea seem better than another. We see this type of writing in the media, making it easy for us to fall prey to this tactic when writing academically or professionally.

Let’s say you need to write a book report or an essay. How do you make your point?  Some people write as follows:

  • Pride and Prejudice is more meaningful.
  • Death of a Salesman is funnier.
  • Survey respondents from Generation X had higher engagement.
  • Focus Group A had double the participants.

Note how these ideas are fundamentally incomplete. Compared to what are the subjects more meaningful, or funnier, or more engaged?

For these sentences to make sense, we need a second subject to complete the comparison:

  • Pride and Prejudice is more meaningful than Emma.
  • Death of a Salesman is funnier than The Crucible.
  • Survey respondents from Generation X had higher engagement than respondents from the other generational cohorts.
  • Focus Group A had double the participants of Focus Group B.

Common comparison error #2: Narrative failure

Sometimes you will want to mention that one subject performed better than another. In such a case, it’s easy for even a skilled writer to make a mistake known as narrative failure:

  • Winnie the dog loves toys more than her owner.
  • Subject 3 wanted companionship more than Subject 4.

Can you spot what’s wrong in those sentences? They sound complete, but the meaning is unclear.

Let’s look at the first example.

  • Does Winnie love toys more than she loves her owner? If a bear were to attack, would she ditch her owner for her chew toy?
  • Or does the sentence indicate that Winnie likes toys more than her owner likes toys? Perhaps her owner would rather read a book than play with toys.

The second example is just as ambiguous.

  • Did Subject 3 want companionship more than Subject 4 wanted companionship?
  • Or did Subject 3 want companionship more than wanting to be with Subject 4? Should Subject 3 be introduced to Winnie the dog?

If you can notice the failure in those sentences, you are already halfway along the path to expressing your comparisons convincingly.

Your readers should never have to infer or assume which two things are being compared.

Avoiding incomplete comparisons

Avoiding an incomplete comparison is straightforward. Whenever you’re writing, ask yourself if someone would be able to tell which two (or more) subjects are being compared from a single sentence.

If the answer is yes, then you have avoided an incomplete comparison. Hooray!

Does anything else seem incomplete in your world? If it has to do with nonfiction writing, we can help! Pop us your question anytime on our Ask the Editor page.

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